Maia Maiden’s Golden Brain, Dedication to Dance

Maia Maiden has a golden brain. People with golden brains are said to be equally adept at right hemisphere (creative thinking) and left hemisphere (logical thinking) functioning. As proof of her aptitude for analytical thinking and rational processing, Maiden is an accomplished lab scientist. Her right brain facility is evident in her work as a hip-hop artist.

Throughout her academic career, Maiden excelled in math and science. She also danced, choreographed pieces, and taught others to dance and was tireless in her efforts not only to bring others into the hip hop community but also to share hip hop with the dance community.

“I come from the golden era of hip hop,” Maiden says. “I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Maia Maiden says, explaining that she grew up listening to and dancing to iconic hip-hop groups like Kid ‘n Play, the Wu-Tang Clan, and A Tribe Called Quest.

When Maiden entered high school, her interest in dance evolved from largely informal hip-hop dancing to more formal dance education. Her family moved from south Minneapolis to Burnsville, and Maiden enrolled at Apple Valley High School. “It could have gone so many different ways,” she says, speaking of the challenges of transitioning from a school with quite a few Black students to one with comparatively few Black students. Especially early on, Maiden didn’t feel welcome at the mostly white school. On her first day, a student asked her a series of troubling questions rooted in ugly stereotypes about Black teens in general and young Black women in particular.

But Maiden persevered. She graduated in the top ten percent of her class owing to her strength of character, dynamism, and aptitude for math and science. Referring to Black students at Apple Valley around that same time, Maiden says “a lot of us were rocking it in those tiers of excellence.”

Maiden’s success in high school primarily resulted from who she is, an intelligent, driven, and disciplined person and student, but, when she speaks of how her experience in high school could have gone differently, she’s recognizing how important dance was in helping her find a home in a place that was, at least initially, unwelcoming. Apple Valley High School had a dance curriculum and that made a world of difference.

“I started officially taking dance class,” Maiden says. “I had no prior dance experience except hip hop and west African and never in a school setting.” The dance classes at Apple Valley were taught by Gesel Mason, a noted choreographer and performer and a current Associate Professor of Dance and Choreography at the University of Texas at Austin. Studying with Mason meant a lot to Maiden and so did formal dance education. “It was a great turning point for me that they had a dance curriculum at my high school,” she says.

Maiden shared that she could not get on the cheerleading squad or the dance team at Apple Valley, so she created a hip-hop dance team called Infinity. “I built that from the ground up with Kelly Batt,” a lifelong friend who died of cancer in 2020. The dance team Maiden and Batt built continued for 17 years after the two graduated. Their work “inspired the creation of hip-hop teams and step teams across the school district.” Maiden also took an interest in and studied choreography in high school. “I’ve been choreographing since I was in junior high school” she says. “I just called it making up dances.”

During college at the University of Minnesota, Maiden kept dancing but did not study dance. She taught dance at Old Arizona studio on Nicollet Avenue, took dance classes from Patricia Brown who also taught at Apple Valley High School and currently teaches at Macalester College, and stayed passionate about hip-hop dance and culture.

“My mom wouldn’t let me go to school for dance. She said ‘you can dance, but you can’t go to school for dance,’” Maiden recalls. Maiden was an excellent student and a Jackie Robinson and Kirby Puckett scholar. She entered the University of Minnesota planning to study chemical engineering but fell in love with lab sciences and changed her major to medical lab sciences with minors in chemistry and biology.

So Maiden keeps both hemispheres of her brain engaged in her professional life, working as a medical lab scientist, teaching at Rasmussen University in the School of Health Sciences, but also making art as a dancer, and choreographer, all while leading Maia Maiden Productions, a Twin Cities-based performing arts presenter focused on creating opportunities for hip hop artists, a Minnesota hip-hop pioneer.

In addition to starting a hip-hop dance team in high school, Maiden also launched Rooted: Hip Hop Choreographers’ Evening, which is an annual favorite, and won the 2014 Sage Award for Outstanding Dance Performance. She recently expanded Rooted as part of a three-day festival called The SOTA Movement (SOTA being short for “Minnesota”), which includes Rooted, a Krump Battle called Uprizing (created by 20/20 Fellow Herb “Fair Warning” Johnson & Ololade “O” Gbadamosi-Alashe), and opportunities for dance, building connections, and promoting hip-hop culture in the Midwest. She also helped bring hip hop to places and stages in the Twin Cities that were previously closed off to their community.

As part of all these efforts, Maiden recognized the importance of study, tradition, knowledge, and information sharing. She emphasizes putting in the work before claiming the label as a hip-hop artist. “Hip hop is about your ability to freestyle, which requires study and technique,” she says, adding that hip-hop dancers “have to demonstrate technique but also need to be multifaceted and have a unique style.”

That attention to technique, pedagogy, and culture, along with Maiden’s zealous evangelism, helped bring hip hop to prominent stages in the Twin Cities, while also keeping it true to its roots. “Hip hop is street culture,” she notes. “There was a lack of recognition for hip-hop for Black people, and for Black creators. We get dismissed and put aside,” she says.

But Maiden’s efforts, and the efforts of others like her, have borne sweet fruit. Hip hop can be seen on stages, and in the streets. It’s taught at the university level now, something that wasn’t true when Maiden was an undergrad. She proud of that success, but also careful to preserve everything about hip hop that has nothing to do with performance halls. “A couple of things in hip-hop culture we have to keep close,” she says, “like our sight for community and our exchange of information.”

The SOTA Movement will debut on June 11, 2021. This represents a milestone for the hip-hop community and a personal triumph for Maiden, who lost her mother to a tragic accident to a just before the pandemic disrupted daily lives and arts programming. In April, Maia Maiden Productions put its planned events on hold. She describes the time as “devastating. I know artists depend on opportunities they get through events like Rooted.”

“But also supporters and audience members, what they’re missing in an experience. My goal is to get everyone off the stage to identify with on the stage.” Events like Rooted and now The SOTA Movement are designed to help individual artists grow in their careers. “We take photos and give artists their performance tapes. We know they need those for grants and opportunities.”

In other words, just as she did when she was in high-school, starting a hip-hop dance team, making a way out of no way, Maiden is, through her work promoting the culture, actively working to help others fulfill their dreams and goals.

“This is about opportunity and acknowledging,” Maiden says, meaning her work. She takes care to note that Rooted is intergenerational, that her work is too. “I came to elevate the culture; I came to rep the tradition” she states, and the foundation she set is advanced by her thoughtful vision, which is equal parts strategic and analytical, and artistic and creative.

“The things I’ve created didn’t exist. I started this because no one gave us a chance,” she concludes. “My work is about early practitioners and new practitioners. It’s my way of saying ‘thank you and we see you.’”